No matter how a judge rules on Ellen R. Sauerbrey's lawsuit seeking to overturn November's gubernatorial election, the Republican is already losing badly in the court of public opinion.
A poll released yesterday shows that if the Nov. 8 election were held again, Parris N. Glendening would win by a 20-point spread, 58 percent to 38 percent, with 4 percent undecided.
That is a considerable improvement for Mr. Glendening, who narrowly beat Mrs. Sauerbrey two months ago. Translated to ballots, his victory margin would rise from last fall's 5,993 to the equivalent of 282,035 votes today.
The shift in public opinion seems due mostly to the public's increasingly negative view of Mrs. Sauerbrey, who made sweeping charges of voter fraud after the election but has since focused mostly on technical violations of state voting law.
The number of voters who regard the former Baltimore County delegate unfavorably has risen to 50 percent -- 20 points higher than two months ago, according to the poll by Mason-Dixon Political Media Research of Columbia.
Meanwhile, 82 percent of the interviewed voters said they don't want a judge to void the election results and declare Mrs. Sauerbrey the victor. And 63 percent said they don't want a new election.
Even Sauerbrey supporters seem to view the legal challenge skeptically. Just 52 percent of people who said they voted for Mrs. Sauerbrey want a new election, while 21 percent of Sauerbrey voters view her as a "sore loser."
The poll, which was conducted for The Sun and other news organizations, was based on telephone interviews with 809 randomly selected registered voters on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The poll's margin of error is 3.5 percentage points.
Del Ali, vice president of Mason-Dixon, said reports of Mrs. Sauerbrey's lawsuit have been "really damaging to her." In particular, he pointed to the Republican's charge that votes were cast in the names of 37 dead people that was followed by reports demonstrating that some of those people are alive.
Mr. Glendening's 58 percent-38 percent showing over Mrs. Sauerbrey was the biggest lead a Mason-Dixon poll has given the Prince George's County Democrat.
"Ellen Sauerbrey's support was never rock solid -- they were moderate-to-liberal Democrats attracted by her proposed 24 percent tax cut who decided to take a shot with her," Mr. Ali said. "Those people have made a reassessment."
The poll found that Mrs. Sauerbrey's favorable rating has slipped slightly from 42 percent two months ago to 38 percent now. Mr. Glendening's popularity hasn't taken off, either; it just hasn't slipped.
The former county executive is seen favorably by 45 percent of respondents, up 2 percentage points from November. More people see him either negatively (28 percent) or neutrally (27 percent).
"Mr. Glendening has no clear mandate," Mr. Ali said.
When pollsters asked if Mrs. Sauerbrey's claims of voter fraud are legitimate or show she's a sore loser, 48 percent labeled her a sore loser and 34 percent said her complaints are legitimate, with the remaining 18 percent unsure.
Mrs. Sauerbrey yesterday questioned the poll's credibility, pointing out that "Mason-Dixon predicted [former congresswoman] Helen Bentley would win the primary." Shortly before the September gubernatorial primary, a Mason-Dixon poll found Mrs. Sauerbrey gaining, but still trailing Mrs. Bentley by 13 percentage points.
"I knew I was taking a risk" with the legal battle, Mrs. Sauerbrey said. "It's often a risk to fight for what you think is right. But I'm still willing to take that risk and accept whatever the consequences are."
Charles F. Porcari, a spokesman for Mr. Glendening, said the poll results are "self-explanatory" and declined to comment further.
After an election, winners generally get a bump in popularity and losers drop in favor as voters react to the results. But the poll's findings suggest that Mrs. Sauerbrey should blame her drop in public opinion on herself, said James Gimpel, an assistant professor of government and politics at University of Maryland College Park.
"It's an extraordinary negative jump [for Mrs. Sauerbrey]," Mr. Gimpel said. "And the bulk of this change is the result of a perception that she's a sore loser."
Mr. Gimpel said Mrs. Sauerbrey's protest may have cost her all the political capital she gained by coming so close last November, and any chance of winning a statewide race in the future.
"She's really losing in the court of public opinion," he said. "This is not helping her at all."
The voters interviewed in the poll were chosen as a sample of sex, race, party affiliation, and geographic distribution. About 49 percent said they voted for Mr. Glendening in November; 47 percent said they voted for Mrs. Sauerbrey; and 4 percent refused to reveal their vote.